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The Empire of the Other

Paul B. Hartzog's picture

Well, as they say, turnabout is fair play, so, since Teramis has recently been inspired by me, then it's my turn to be inspired by her post:

What I hate about galactic empires

In my academic work, I am constantly confronted by and struggle with this problem of Otherness, whether gender, race, culture, etc. and fantasy and science fiction are the literatures that have taught me (personally and politically) to embrace the Other and to respect and seek out Difference.

I think this is also what appeals to me about Cosmic Horror (Lovecraft's style of horror and also his fantasy). There is something truly frightening about a vast empire ruled by intelligences that we can not only not communicate with, but that whose psyches we could never understand even if we did communicate with them.

Alien means alien.

(Which by the way is why the alien in the first Alien film is truly alien, and the Aliens in the second film are not: because Ripley makes contact with the queen, and communicates to her.)

Radical Otherness is incommensurable. Shared ground is non-alien by definition. Galactic Empires, then, are predicated on the requirement that their members possess at least some kinds of similarity, and are thus not alien to each other.

I think a cosmopolitan Empire is certainly possible and maybe even likely when a large cross-section of intelligences are able to come to terms with each other, and you can look to David Brin's Uplift stories for examples, but you have to go to something like Stanislaw Lem's Solaris of Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud for real otherness.

One of the finest examples of this is then end of Arthur C. Clarke's "Childhood's End" where the next step in human evolution is to become Other and is thus something to be both celebrated and feared. Ah, the sorrow/joy of life in the Universe.

This could be the start of a beautiful conversation.... :-)

Teramis's picture

Alien: all or nothing?


Thanks for sharing these thoughts. Great grist, here. I'm under a hairy deadline and want to return to this later to get into more detail here, but for now, want to toss out this thought.

What strikes me first in what you write is that you are framing alieness as a binary state: if known/knowable, then != alien. Conversely, not known/knowable = alien. One state necessarily excludes the other.

I'm not sure, however, that I agree with that construct. Rather than an either/or proposition, I think of alien-ness as a spectrum. Where a being situates on that axis is relative to the observer, so that an alien may be very familiar, or completely beyond the ken, or someplace in between.

Beyond the opposed options of knowable/unknowable, I think it is possible to have an experience of the alien that is unbridgeable to some extent (perhaps an overwhelming extent), or that may also be *bridgeable to some extent (great or small, TBD). Thus, the observer's experience of the Other's alienness comes from cumulative "factors of alienness", not simply, or only, a black and white inability to grok the Other. The more factors aggregated, the more alien and unknowable the Other seems.

I posted something in this vein recently at my blog, regarding Growing complex aliens. That elaborates on my thinking a bit more, though not directly in response to your point.

Ok, that's my drive-by thought du jour. To be continued. :)

Deborah Teramis Christian
Feed: Notes From the Lizard Lair